[OSR] Dersu Uzala: The Ultimate Wilderness Hexcrawl?

edited May 2014 in Story Games
Last night I finally got around to watching Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala. The film is based on the memoirs of V. Arseniev, a Russian explorer, and is basically a love letter to the title character, an indigenous hunter who served as a guide for Arseniev’s expeditions.

So, what does this film have to do with old-school wilderness exploration and hex crawling? Check it out:

Captain Arseniev’s mission in the movie is to MAP an unexplored wilderness area—probably one of the last such areas in the world in the early 1900s. Their ultimate goal is to map the area around a lake, but in game terms, they never really know what’s going to be in the next hex.

So, what did I take away from this awesome true-story example of a hexcrawl?


Random encounters, not necessarily in film order:

--A bear—no wait, it’s Dersu, an indigenous hunter.
--A cabin or hut. Someone stayed here recently, but who?
--Pit traps set up by Chinese bandits. Roll to see what’s in them: dead animals, live animals—on a 1 you fall in the pit.
--Men captured by Chinese bandits, tied up, left to die.
--Chinese bandits—no wait, they’re actually fighters who are looking for the bandits.
--An old Chinese hermit who fled into the mountains 40 years ago after his brother stole the woman he loved.
--A tiger.
--A stag.
--Another tiger—but is it real, a spirit being, or a hallucinatory symbol of your fear of the forest?
--Lots and lots of tracks.
—Mmm, what’s that smell? An indigenous family frying fish in their home. Will they let you have some?
—A twig tied into a circle and hung on a tree branch. What does it mean? (Answer: “don’t bother looking for ginseng here”)

Other things that can happen, again not in film order:

--Various factors necessitate splitting the party.
--Oh shit, we’re lost.
--A freezing-cold windstorm, and the sun is low in the sky. We’ll die unless we can cut down all this wild grass and make a shelter before nightfall.
--Building a raft in order to cross a body of water.
--Dersu’s stuck in the river but oh shit, we used all the rope for that raft.
--People who speak different languages and have different cultures and beliefs. Can you communicate with them?

Random notes:

--I like the idea of random encounters that are ambiguous and not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Are those tracks really what they look like? Is that sound a bear or a person? What’s that smell? Of course, this shouldn't be overdone or used to dick with the players.

--Resource management is really important, obviously, and necessitates hard choices.

--It’s cool to see the captain carrying around his surveying gear, drawing maps, and keeping a log.


--Despite all the cool hexcrawlish elements, what really makes the story compelling is the relationship between Captain Arseniev and Dersu. In OSR games you have no mechanical way to model this kind of relationship; players might or might not roleplay it, since there is no incentive in the rules.


  • Neat! I want to watch this now.

    I wonder what the best way to play with lost characters is.
  • edited May 2014
    "To play with" ... as a GM? I think the first decision is whether you're focusing on the map or the story. If you want to focus on the map, then you find or create tables for daily move rates, encumberance/fatigue, food/water, chance of getting off track, chance of finding your bearings, chance of hunting/foraging for food, etc, and track their progress on a hexmap. If you want to focus on the story, I think the "Landscapes" Moves from AW should serve pretty well:

    • Reveal something to someone.
    • Display something for all to see.
    • Hide something.
    • Bar the way.
    • Open the way.
    • Provide another way.
    • Shift, move, rearrange.
    • Offer a guide.
    • Present a guardian.
    • Disgorge something.
    • Take something away: lost, used up, destroyed.

    I've never seen Dersu Uzala but @kurisu's description made me think of other great movies and books, from "The Valley Obscured by Clouds" to "Man in the Wilderness" to Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon"...

    "Through the Wilderness" is a very genre-agnostic topic, actually. Which may explain why there's not a lot of rules written for it. It's like a horizontal problem in an industry of vertical solutions.
  • It's a great film.
    And then the business at the end shows you how you could do kind of the reverse - an OSR urban hexcrawl where you have a home base and explore the city, trying to deal with all the locals' weird rules like "no building fires in the park".

  • I wonder what the best way to play with lost characters is.
    This is a pretty interesting question, actually.

    What are some good mechanics or methods for handling navigation errors and getting lost? Do you let the players draw an entirely incorrect map, for example?

    The mechanics of hexcrawling give, at the very least, the illusion of objectivity: here's this physical map and we know where we are on it. Very different from the sensation of being lost in the woods and not knowing which way North is!

    I'd imagine one of the problems in the latter approach is that, in real life, you can look around and use your instincts, or some half-remembered landmarks, to try to decide whether, yes, indeed, we came from that way over there... and then we can try to convince each other that one of us is right and the other is wrong, because, look, wasn't the sun just to our left an hour ago?

    How to do this in a rules-mediated, abstract exploration is less obvious. If we know that each of us has a 20% of being wrong, and the GM tells us that I think it's left and you think it's right, what interesting discussion can we have?

    I'd love to hear about people's experience with this kind of thing. My only experience with hexcrawling (the IRC game we have going on here) has only featured "error-free" mapping, with being lost not a concern, which works well but ignores the kind of issue we're discussing here.

  • (Of course, @Potemkin really needs to check out this thread...)
  • That is a movie I enjoyed and had almost forgotten, thank you for reminding me.
    It does fit very well.
  • @Paul_T I'm here, I'm here! Whew, there are just too many hexcrawl conversations for me to follow right now. ;D

    Just want to say that Dersu Uzala looks amazing, this thread has totally sold me on it. Thinking on it, quite a few famous Kurosawa films could probably be translated over into Hexcrawl - he did love his sprawling natural settings.

    Also up for consideration are:
    Tarkovsky's Stalker but, like, as a Hexcrawl adaption of the film, not latter-day Stalker products
    Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. I was a scout. A "modern day" hexcrawl involving wandering around in the woods of my childhood county as mystery-solving youth - Enid Blyton-style - has a certain appeal.

    The Ultimate Dungeoncrawl on film? Big Trouble in Little China.

  • *squints* Big Trouble? It always felt more like an Indiana Jones globetrotting adventure to me (with a relatively small "globe"). Can I ask you to expound a little on this?
  • edited May 2014
    A globetrotting adventure... when most of the movie takes place in a supernatural, underground labyrinth filled with traps, ancient treasures and deadly monsters? And you don't think it resembles a D&D dungeon in any way? *squints right back atcha* Turns out AD&D: Oriental Adventures was released the year before - if that doesn't say something, I don't know what does.

    It's pretty clear that Jack Burton is a Level 1 Fighter who's totally clueless but has a DM who loves his expositive NPCs. The way information flows to Jack (and therefore the viewer) feels a lot like the DM-Player exchange.
  • I'm rewatching it now and you're right, I thought they did more wandering before ending up in the fun zone. I guess the first part can get filed under mysterious-stranger-in-tavern hijinks.
  • I'm trying to fight the overpowering urge to run AD&D: Oriental Adventures with a heavy Big Trouble in Little China vibe. It'll all end in tears though. Racist, racist tears.
  • I just watched Dersu Uzala. Thanks for the pointer!
  • Speaking of racist dungeon crawls, I also saw part of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad on TV the other day.
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